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Retro Rewind: “Ok Computer” by Radiohead

Ok Computer | Courtesy of Uriel Valentin

The 1990s were a very interesting time for rock and roll, as the genre’s mainstream course was leaving the realm of arena rock and glam metal in favor of a grittier, alternative path.

There is no doubt in my mind that when someone thinks about influential rock acts from the 1990s, two acts come to mind: Nirvana and Radiohead. Both put out popular rock albums during the decade, but out of that collection of records, one stands above all others. That album, released May 21, 1997, is “OK Computer.”

Four singles were released to support the album: “Paranoid Android,” “Karma Police,” “Lucky” and “No Surprises.”

According to a variety of sources, including music reviewers, general audience members and musicians themselves, “OK Computer” is one of the greatest albums ever created.

I do not disagree with that statement, though not every reviewer shares the same sentiments.

The band

Formed in Abingdon, England in 1985, Radiohead features Thom Yorke on vocals and guitar, bassist Colin Greenwood, lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, guitarist/backing vocalist Ed O’Brien and drummer Philip Selway.

The group has sold more than 30 million records (as of 2011), and have released nine studio albums together. Radiohead was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019, and their albums have often been cited as some of the best music of the past few decades.

The tracklist

Opening up “OK Computer” is the track “Airbag,” which is based off a magazine article titled “An Airbag Saved My Life.” “Paranoid Android” is an epic that could have been incredibly pretentious, but avoided that pitfall with its uneasy atmosphere and wild ambition.

“Subterranean Homesick Alien” features a narrator wishing to be abducted by extraterrestrials, and has a noticeably lighter tone than its predecessor. “Exit Music For A Film” was inspired by the classic “Romeo and Juliet” and jumps headfirst into this depressing tone.

The track “Let Down” comes next, featuring impressive guitar work, while “Karma Police” is structured around the acoustic guitar and an inside joke from the band.

Following this track is “Fitter Happier,” a short tune that has spoken lyrics from Macintosh’s Simple Text application placed over an instrumental built around samples. Arguably the political song on the album, “Electioneering,” is next, which is also its most rock-oriented track, while “Climbing Up The Walls” is a chaotic but well-structured piece.

“No Surprises,” based around the soulful styles of Louis Armstrong and Marvin Gaye, contrasts this mood with brash lyrics about a suicidal individual. “Lucky” takes inspiration from the Bosnian War and features a pleasant three-piece guitar arrangement, while the album’s closer, “The Tourist,” forces the listener to slow down and step back as they near the record’s end.

The production

This album was entirely self-produced by Radiohead along with Nigel Godrich, who has produced every one of the band’s albums from that point onwards. Recording on “OK Computer” began in July 1996 in the band’s Canned Applause studio, based near Didcot, Oxfordshire.

After almost finishing four songs at this studio (“Subterranean Homesick Alien,” “Electioneering,” “No Surprises” and “The Tourist”), Radiohead embarked on a short American tour that year and was asked by Baz Luhrmann to compose a track for his adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet.” That track became “Exit Music (For A Film),” which fittingly plays over the movie’s credits sequence.

They resumed recording sessions for the record at St. Catherine’s Court, a mansion in Bath, in September of 1996.

Jonny Greenwood, comparing this space with other studios, mentioned that recording in St. Catherine’s Court “was less like a laboratory experiment, which is what being in a studio is usually like, and more about a group of people making their first record together.”

The band members utilized most of the rooms in this manor for recording, including the ballroom, where “Let Down” was created at 3 a.m.

According to O’Brien, “the biggest pressure was actually completing [the recording]. We weren’t given any deadlines and we had complete freedom to do what we wanted. We were delaying it because we were a bit frightened of actually finishing stuff.”

He later estimated that 80 percent of “OK Computer” was recorded live, expressing his dislike for overdubbing melodies.

“It just doesn’t feel natural,” O’Brien said. “Something special happens when you’re playing live; a lot of it is just looking at one another and knowing there are four other people making it happen.”

Rehearsals at Canned Applause and later recording sessions at St. Catherine’s Court brought that portion of the album’s creation to a close. “OK Computer” was mixed and mastered in early 1997 at numerous studios around London (including Abbey Road Studios), and was completed in March of that year.

What critics thought of “OK Computer”

When “OK Computer” was released in 1997, the album received mostly universal acclaim. John Harris, writing for the British music magazine Select, said of the album “every word sounds achingly sincere, every note spewed from the heart, and yet it roots itself firmly in a world of steel, glass, random-access memory and prickly-skinned paranoia.”

In a review for The New Yorker, Alex Ross wrote that “throughout the album, contrasts of mood and style are extreme … This band has pulled off one of the great art-pop balancing acts in the history of rock.”

However, some were less enthusiastic about the album. Robert Christgau for The Village Voice wrote that Yorke’s vocals contained “enough electronic marginal distinction to feed a coal town for a month” and mentioned that the songs on the album lacked soul, which, to him, resulted in an “arid” form of art-rock.

Meanwhile, Andy Gill for The Independent wrote that “for all its ambition and determination to break new ground, ‘OK Computer’ is not, finally, as impressive as ‘The Bends’, which covered much the same sort of emotional knots, but with better tunes. It is easy to be impressed by, but ultimately hard to love, an album that luxuriates so readily in its own despondency.”

Later reviews have also praised the album immensely, though many consider it to be overrated.

In a retrospective review, Christgau mentioned that “the reason the readers of the British magazine Q absurdly voted ‘OK Computer” the greatest album of the 20th century is that it integrated what was briefly called electronica into rock.” Meanwhile, David H. Green of The Daily Telegraph stated that the album’s content was “self-indulgent whingeing.”

The United States National Recording Preservation Board chose “OK Computer” for preservation in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2014. It is also ranked by Rolling Stone magazine on their list of the 500 greatest albums at number 162.

The record was nominated for Album of the Year and Best Alternative Music Performance at the 40th Annual Grammy Awards, winning the latter.

What I think about the album

In my opinion, this is an album you have to listen to from front to back in order to get the best experience. Lyrically, “OK Computer,” has a lot of substance, and I don’t feel like Radiohead is being pretentious in the presentation of that substance.

It merges the electronic and rock influences with ease, and sounds incredibly cohesive going from track to track with its central themes of political dissatisfaction and consumerism.

I will admit that I never paid much attention to Radiohead and their music prior to listening through “OK Computer,” but now that I’ve completed the album, I feel like it’s a great starting point for anyone who would like to dive into their discography.